Chuck Schumer Wants to Legalize It

Top Senate Dem. announces marijuana legislation on 4/20

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer / Getty Images
April 20, 2018

Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) on Friday morning announced his intention to introduce legislation to decriminalize marijuana federally.

"Today, I am formally announcing my plan to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level. It's time we allow states, once and for all, to have the power to decide what works best for them," Schumer wrote on Twitter.

Schumer's official announcement followed a Thursday night interview with Vice News, in which he discussed his legalization agenda. The sexagenarian Senator also signed a bong for the news site, which has attained a marijuana-laced reputation with articles like "The Best Weed Strains for Mind-Blowing Sex."

Schumer's bill would remove marijuana from the federal drug schedule, a list of regulated substances created by the Controlled Substances Act and administered by the Drug Enforcement Agency. Marijuana is currently a schedule one drug, meaning it is considered both to have a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use.

This harsh scheduling has been continuous since the list was first created in 1971. The designation puts marijuana alongside drugs like heroin, LSD, ecstasy, and Quaaludes.

Critics argue that marijuana's schedule one status has limited scientists' ability to research its potential medical uses, preserving its schedule one status. There are nonetheless some proposed applications: An FDA panel on Thursday floated a cannabis-derived anticonvulsant. If approved, that drug might also affect marijuana's schedule one status.

In addition to de-scheduling, Vice reported, Schumer's bill would provide funding for woman- and minority-owned marijuana businesses, preserve federal authority to regulate marijuana-related advertising (as with alcohol and tobacco products), and provide funding for marijuana research.

Schumer cited incarceration for marijuana possession as a reason for his change of mind. Only about 3 percent of all state prisoners are incarcerated for possession of any drug—less than one percent are incarcerated for possession of marijuana specifically.

Schumer noted on Twitter that 80 percent of federal-level and 60 percent of state-level drug offenders are Latino or Hispanic. He did not distinguish marijuana offenders from others convicted of drug offenses, nor did he disclose that 97.3 percent of federal drug offenders are incarcerated for trafficking.

Schumer also pointed to the rate of marijuana arrests as an argument for legalization, claiming based on 2010 data that half of all drug arrests in the U.S. were for marijuana. The Washington Post, using FBI data, estimated that there were just under 600,000 marijuana arrests in 2016. Those arrests accounted for about 37 percent of the total number of arrests for drug abuse violations.

Notably, while state-level legalization of marijuana reduces overall marijuana arrests, racial disparity in arrests persists. Eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational use of marijuana in some way.

Despite his overstatement of its impact, Schumer's bill is likely to be politically popular. Recent Gallup polling found that 64 percent of Americans support legalization. That includes 51 percent of Republicans, the first time that Gallup has found majority support for legalization in the GOP.

At least one prominent Republican has attracted recent headlines for a change in thinking on marijuana. Former House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) announced last week that he had joined the board of one of the nation's largest cannabis dispensaries, and intends to work to shift federal medical marijuana policy.

Boehner claimed to have never smoked marijuana. Schumer told Vice that the same was true of him. But, when asked if he would, the Senate majority leader added, "Maybe, I'm a little old, but who knows?"

Published under: Chuck Schumer , Marijuana